Kissed by Cecelia Mecca
Camburg Castle, England, 1299
“Sir Tristan is back.”
These four words, spoken by her best friend—second best friend if Tristan were to be included—were not the ones Regina wished to hear this eve. They had finally finished baking for the day. Exhausted, in need of a bath and woefully underprepared to see him, Regina nevertheless hurried her step.
“I thought perhaps that might prompt you to change your mind.” Cateline did not bother to hide her smile.
“You’ve been outside the walls all day. How do you know?” Regina asked as the two women made their way around the buildings on the outskirts of the village. Neither wished to be seen as they were at the end of a long day. Regina looked as if a sack of flour had attacked her, and Cateline, the alewife’s daughter . . . well, she smelled as if she’d bathed in a vat of yeast.
“When the lord’s son returns”—Cateline gave Regina a knowing, sidelong gaze—“everyone knows of it.”
Which was true, of course. Tristan had been gone for his longest stint away from Camburg yet. She’d last seen him in May, seven months ago. Regina had begun to fret he may not return in time for Christmas, which was just two days away. The thought of him returning made her pulse race. As it always had.
As it should not.
The eldest son of Lord Thornhurst, seneschal of Camburg Castle, would not, could not, see the baker’s daughter as anything but what the two of them had enjoyed since they could walk. A beautiful, lifelong friendship that Regina truly cherished, even if, as they grew older, she couldn’t help but notice the boy was becoming very much a man. One every single woman at Camburg looked at the way she was determined not to. Tristan did not need another woman pining for him. He had plenty of those.
But he did need a friend. Even now, so many years later. He might smile for all to see, but there was a sadness to him only she and a few others detected.
“Now will you come this eve?” Cateline asked.
As they passed the mill, the sky already darkened and streets of the village emptying as its inhabitants prepared for supper, Regina’s answer was automatic. “Aye.”
Perhaps she simply enjoyed torturing herself, but she’d no sooner miss Tristan’s homecoming than an opportunity to nibble on her father’s freshly baked pandemain, her favorite bread but one they rarely made.
“Good eve, Regina,” a young man called, waving enthusiastically to them as the women turned the corner.
“Good eve,” she called back to the miller. He had lost his wife just a sennight ago, and Regina had personally brought him two loaves of rye bread earlier that day. “I feel so poorly for him,” she told Cateline.
“You feel poorly for everyone,” her friend remarked.
Regina looked up. Indeed, as she suspected. Snow had begun to fall, ever so lightly. Smiling, she took off her glove and attempted to catch a flake in her hand. How perfect that it would snow the day before Christmas. Her smile fled, though, when she spied Cateline’s expression. “You would do well to find enjoyment where you can. Look,” she said, “tis snowing.”
Cateline, who was quite opposite her—tall, even willowy, with golden hair that seemed as if it had been spun to perfection—rolled her eyes. “I find as much enjoyment in a pre-Christmas snowfall as you.”
“Then why do you frown so?” she teased, knowing full well the reason.
“Ugh, you are maddening.”
Regina stopped, sighed loudly, and ignored the cold on her hand. She would not give up attempting to catch a snowflake. Ah, there. Got one. “What would you have me say, Cat? That I am ecstatic Tristan has returned? That I’ve been pining for him since he left last spring?”
Her friend’s eyes softened. “It would be the truth,” she said. Cat did not blink as the corners of her lips tugged upwards.
“Aye,” Regina agreed. “But a truth that holds little significance. He is the lord’s only son. You heard the rumors as well as I. They say his betrothal to Lady Johanne of Willmore is imminent. Lord Thornhurst would do well to make such an alliance with so much uncertainty about the king’s next move. After the pope’s condemnation of the king, all of the border lords seek stability when continued upheaval is all but a certainty.”
“Upheaval is our way of life. You talk of politics to avoid the discussion at hand. You have been miserable . . . miserable . . . since Tristan has been gone.”
She dearly loved Cat but her friend’s relentlessness could also be a bit of a chore too. “I have been fine,” she insisted, saying the lie as firmly as she was able. “As I will be when he marries.” An even bigger lie. “Do you wish to join the festivities or nay?”
All were welcomed into the great hall both this eve and for the next twelve days. For most, this day was the last they would work until after the new year, she and her parents included. They had paid the price this past sennight, working well before dawn and beyond sunset to accomplish such a feat, but there was now enough bread to supply Camburg Castle for a fortnight.
As such, Regina was so tired she’d planned only to retire to the manor she occupied with her parents and younger brother, and sleep. Perhaps until well after the sun rose on the morrow. But now it seemed her plans had changed.
Tristan was home.
The day she both welcomed, and dreaded, for months had finally arrived.